December 18, 2017

Holiday Books

By Bellwether

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People said they liked last year’s book list, so here we go again for this year.

Like half my friends I’m hoping to find the new Grant biography and Against the Grain in my stocking on Christmas morning. But rather than a wishlist, here are a handful of the books, new and old but more off the beaten path, that I read in 2017. In need of holiday gift ideas? Try these:

Down the Great Unknown, Edward Dolnick. This readable history is a revisionist look at the 1869 Powell Expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. I went through some of those canyons this summer. It’s a challenge in 2017, so imagine in the 19th Century sans maps when no one had any idea what was around the next bend or really how to run rivers much at all. The history and adventure are compelling but Dolnick’s account also sheds some light on river running techniques and water issues in the west.

Finn Murphy’s Long Haul. A book about the moving industry – and it’s a page turner? Indeed. Murphy dropped out of college at Colby to become a mover – he’d done it some part-time in high school and during college (his first day on the job was a doozy that alone makes the book worth reading). But the interesting thing hidden in plain sight here is that as a mover Murphy really sees America from the ground floor. So Long Haul is as much a book about race and class and the changing nature of American life as it is about the ridiculous stories Murphy compiled over the decades and the miles (and that he tells exceedingly well).

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway. There is an ongoing project to catalog Ernest Hemingway’s letters and Cambridge University Press is publishing the volumes. Volume 4, which covers 1929-1931 came out this fall, edited by Sandra Spanier and Miriam Mandel. It is a fascinating window into Hemingway when his career is taking off in the wake of A Farewell to Arms. The letters run from the mundane to the significant – as well as the mundane but significant. For instance, a 1929 letter to the editor Max Perkins after Hemingway finds two copies of Farewell at a bookstore features him arguing about the size of his name on the cover. Yes, too small he says.  A revealing window into an icon of 20th Century American literature.

Jim Ryan was announced this fall as the new President of the University of Virginia. K-12 education types were excited, too, and here’s why: Five Miles Away, A World Apart. It’s a powerful book on why your zip code has so much leverage in education and life. (He also published a book this year, “Wait, what?” about questioning).

In the same vein as Five Miles Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is also worth checking out if you are unaware of the extent to which the housing patterns that today vex school reform efforts are not merely a function of personal residential preferences and de facto segregation. Rothstein offers chapter and verse on the legal history, the government’s role, and how although various racial covenants are invalid now but still impact housing in the United States. People will disagree over the merits of his policy recommendations and their political potential and Rothstein’s hard-edged deterministic streak is evident (he’s best known in education circles for essentially arguing that school reform efforts hold little promise in the face of socioeconomic circumstances today). But the history and context here is vital.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a colleague who had relocated to the western desert and was remarking how much she liked it out there among the sagebrush and big sky. So I sent her Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. But my true favorite Abbey book that I checked in with earlier this year is The Brave Cowboy. (It was turned into a lovely Kirk Douglas film, “Lonely Are The Brave.”) It’s a great story – a classic old west tale but in more recent times. People out of step, iconoclasts, timeless themes.

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